CW: misogyny, body horror, private parts, reality distortion
It’s all treehouse-deprived, diy sweater chokers, asymmetric workouts, tetanus nail culture, Cammy thinks as she watches pastel shades of skin walk by. Jewel will always keep her watching these freak shows, because some part of him, conscious or otherwise, just wants to troll her into submission. A pre-emptive strike and paranoid because she’s never shown any feelings for him that stray from the beaten line.
This culture is not for her and he’s making her live it, with her dirty hair pinned behind a pullover hood that she’s not sure is even her. It’s stupid because yeah, if you look at it one way, it’s her problem. If you look at it another way, it’s his. It’s not valid for him to troll her over it, and right as she decides that she’s gonna leave and let him stew until he’s ready to play fair, he saunters out of the crowd with his stupid braided goatee and his stupid not-too-radical tee and a look that says the Tri-Sun overhead is just for him.
It isn’t though, and it’s not for these other dimensional refugees. It’s for the Velih, and whenever he wears that look she wants to scream, isn’t this ghetto enough for you? She wants to scream it loud and hard until her lungs burst. Burst and fill blood and that’s what’s she’s breathing, pumping blood into her lungs until that’s all she can feel.
Wants to grab him by his skinny shoulders but she just stands there stupid as he walks up to her. He tells her the passcode, always a short greeting so no one can tell they’re exchanging vitals. It’s “ayo," today, three letters that whiten her synapses with anger like permafrost.
Today isn’t the day she finally decks him one for years of intangibility. She’s been trolled again, she realizes, right as she was about to give it up. It’s like he knows her threshold to the exact measurement, like he knows her well, or something.
He’s soft spoken to a nervy tic, and the “ayo" flutters from his lips to hers like a butterfly with its feelers out. Strands tickling the breeze. She wants to close her hand over it and crush it to death and maybe tear the wings off, but she can’t do anything either.
All she can do is start walking home, past the camouflaged storefronts and deep Velih state sleeper vagrants. The plastered handbills in the katakana, the refuge from those not interested enough to mentally translate, announcing ambrosaic all nighters and schizophrenia spam sessions. She’s always wanted to try the second but every time she meets with Jewel she knows the true way of seeing is that you will always find yourself on the path home, no matter if you don’t want to be.
She wonders if that will bury her, if when she is buried she will think, this isn’t home. Home is where I was.
Home is through alleys overwashed with flowing patterns of shaded triangles. Home is past someone smoking a cig more fire than dart in torn pants tactically revealing closed loop visual tattoos. Home is only seeing a sliver of the Tri-Sun here and there as you dig deeper into the Clusters.
Home is a room behind a door that’s only there when she wants it to be. It materializes on a wall painted over with a girl pulling apart her buttcheeks to reveal an eye, sliver pupilled like a cat’s. The new street art wave of misogynistic philosophy that says girls are only good for looking at you.
She thinks when she isn’t looking Jewel goes out and tags himself into a stupor. At her most paranoid she thinks he’s the one that tagged over her door, and at her least paranoid she thinks there’s a nonzero chance.
Home is the laptop she got in exchange for a kiss her memory has sunken deep in the gradient. Home is the only website she ever visits, flickering onto her screen with the Velih’s hyper-weird system of urls from obscure pulled languages. Home is a walled in room with these things and a waterbed that’s survived the wax of a decade. It’s the same water, has been, but her sleep, her dreaming patterns, have changed.
Reality no longer meets them even halfway.
Home is these walls, too thin so she’s breathing the Velih air outside. She struggles with each first morning breath, getting it into her lungs, and she can tell her brain stalls out on it. When it sets off the blood plume, she has the strength to slide from the seasoned slab but even then her feet are blistered by needles of cold.
Home is that there’s a whole dimension to explore and all she’s ever known is this ghetto.
Home is that they don’t deserve more.
Home is that all paths loop back to the centre, even the paths she finds through the Loum. They think the Loum has developed consciousness, and she believes that. She believes with consciousness it’s developed need. The need to be accessed, the need to be touched.
The Loum is made of pathways through life. She and Jewel work from different ends to find the pathways that are solutions.
But if she thinks far back enough, all her problems come from pathways too, and she never picked these pathways under the Tri-Sun. They all come from the Loum. They are all strands woven into a tangle, and it’s only when she holds them apart, untwined and held by her slender fingers, that she knows how much it’s all been a waste of time.
Jewel is already on the Loum by the time she logs in. This creeps her out but honestly she’d rather he be there than anywhere under the Tri-Sun. Jewel is all ego masking as deep sorrow, like some kind of virus perfectly attuned to the Velih thoughtflow that reaches for meaning with a grasping hand but finds only bird wings. Tears them, collects and forgets them as they’re collected. She can see his presence in the haze, the sharp images of his chosen symbolic meaning and the blurs of what he gives away.
Jewel was an architect of the Loum and she knows he built it so that what you give away blurs. If you could see his clearly it’d be hideous. She’s seen other patchworks of molted skeining, and they were more honest, though probably down to a lack of weaving skill.
Everyone thinks the Velih bind their tangles tighter than footwraps, but sometimes she can’t shake the feeling that they are just that pure, and the Clusters are existentially necessary so they don’t get defiled by the human refugees. She’s wondered long about what it would mean if they figured enough of the code thread to see the foundations of it. See if it was woven at all, if the Velih didn’t invent weaving. Their beautiful tangle was there for them the moment they opened their eyes. Sometimes she thinks she’d be the only person not surprised. The refugees would have coronaries. She thinks they only try so hard to look weird because deep down they think purity is impossible.
But the Loum is brilliant today. Almost too brilliant because they need focus to get out of this. The spacial geometry is all fractals, sharp edges slanting to parallel then parallax with each other. The colours run, losing base to brightness in gradient flows. Lines paling to frost represent the Loum’s most vivid threads. These are the logically connected thoughts, the pathways that if followed will result in some concrete change in external context.
She and Jewel started at different ends and met in the middle and they thought that meant there was purity there. They matched it to a leyline running under the Tri-Sun and followed it.
It took them to a ziplocked bag, pocket sized, space enough to fishcan-press two severed fingers. Inside it were two black pills, each marked with a hexagram, white lines as vivid as any paths in the skeinways. They both saw it at the same time. She knew because their eyes found each other and by the time they found the pills again they knew they were being watched. Not with the kind of eyes that see skin. Eyes that see leylines, the threads that bind souls.
Velih eyes. What would they be doing, where the white thread had led them? What would they be seeing?
She wasn’t sure. But she’d seen with her eyes Jewel’s arm snake down. She’d seen his palm close over the bag, fingernails scrabbling on the gritted concrete, fingertips peeling slivers of skin.
She’d seen him take it and she’d seen him pull her back the way they came. She’d felt the eyes, burning into her, knew it was eyes because it was hotter than she’d ever felt the Tri-Sun. She could feel her cells blackening, just in the thought that something in it was tainting her. Then they were past neowave misogynistic thighs and eyes and lost in the crowd, waves of people bled together and into each other. Freakpsych oblivion in the glitter of bands and pierced extremities against kaleidoscopic shimmers of skin. All the death fash hurled out and over them.
He had pulled her into a corner store and into the back and she should have said no. She knew better than to alter her perceptions with a boy, especially with someone like Jewel. Knew it was what the neowaves wanted, for them to take drugs and see the waves as beautiful. But he took one first, palming it, pooling spit in his mouth to choke it down.
And she had taken one too, and he had put fingers to his lips, kept them there for full seconds, and then he had backed down the aisle, vanished behind the freeze dried baby octopi and the wholesale rabanadas. She was left there, staring at the specialty board, not knowing whether to move, or what to do, only knowing that the eyes were somewhere out there. That they’d done something they shouldn’t. She knew it deep in her bones.
Moments after that she knew those bones weren’t real.
She knew that she was just sight. She was just sight and everything else, moving her around, and nothing stayed if you looked twice for it. She tried it on everything she saw, whipping her head back and just seeing void. The people were look-ing at her weird, then she’d look back and they were smiling warm, look back and they were furious, look back and they were so sad she couldn’t understand it. Couldn’t understand it because nothing was real so what was there to be sad over?
She reached up to feel her skull and there was nothing there. She moved her hands behind her eyes and didn’t feel anything. Saw all the food around and realized she could never eat again, if she wanted to, as long as no one knew she wasn’t eating.
Knew the leylines weren’t destiny, that they were just some nightmare of concretized blood vessels.
She had walked home, careful only to see things she wanted to see, and when her door had materialized on a tabula rasa blank wall, she had walked through it, and felt herself dissolve.
Without eyes that saw skin she simply wasn’t, and never really had been.
She had opened her beater laptop and logged onto the Loum and in that moment she had known the truth of it.
The Loum was what had come first. It was the outside they had built around them, out of threads of fear because that was all they had to work with. They had built it themselves, the Clusters and the Tri-Sun and everything they told themselves they were seeing and feeling.
The Velih were just a name for eyes that would see who they really were. Just a name and a made up history and everything that they could project onto something else. A something else that would be better than them because something had to be. A name and a history and something they could see if they looked for it.
If they didn’t look for it would never be there. If they weren’t so scared of the eyes they would never feel them.
She had known that, as clear as she thought she knew her skin. And it had worn off like a drug is supposed to wear off, and she remembered she believed in the leylines as things that were just there and you had to deal. Then she remembered she believed in reality as something that was just there and you had to deal. Remembered finally eyes as something that watched you and things that watched you had meaning.
And the meaning she came to was that they’d stolen pills from the Velih, and the Velih had seen them do it.
She didn’t know how to make it right, but that was where the Loum threads came in, the pathways she and Jewel would follow after under the Tri-Sun. Pathways gleaned in the Loum that would solve their problem, and she almost forgot, she told herself, that the problem started in the Core Skein in the first place.
When she’d opened her beater, this time the entropic glyphia had told her where to thread in to find him.
‘CROSS THE BLUR
Jewel’s lines were always fake, but at least, she thinks, as she swims in them, they were faked to look like something real. Something authentic that recognized their binds weren’t binds at all, that if you looked at them long enough you knew the only glue to them was the thought of their binding.
So what are his lines? Direction, direction to something that changed you, or your context, or maybe both at once. A voice in the dark when you’re stumbling and groping for light. Someone dishevelled in their wisdom, putting a cheap rate on guidance when you’re confused.
She guesses that’s what drew her to him, though a part of her doesn’t want to see it that way, doesn’t want to see herself as that stupid. They met in the Loum first, vibrations smushing together more lines than normal. Neither were happy, they found, and it’s not because of the Clusters. They think the Clusters are a distraction. What makes them sinister is they make you think you would be happy if you weren’t in them.
When she saw him under the Tri-Sun she was disappointed, yeah. But what else would he look like? He had to have some haircut and some chin set up and it couldn’t have been worse but it couldn’t have been better either. Anyway she didn’t want him to bone her. Too fast, never good enough. She just wanted to find some pathways that didn’t leave her feeling like her time was being grated, peeling tender strips like it was always boneless.
Her lines now are wavy, almost ‘cross the blur but that’s impossible. The thread he’s on is taut and dark and she looks for associations. She’ll meet him in the middle of any thread just so they can be on the same page. He’s got a braid so she’s got-ta untwine it and anything else comes second.
Knotted braids are choice tangles and untwining shows you the way forward. Her lines are bright but she can’t see her own haze. She forgot her image a long time ago and was glad. It feels honest that she doesn’t know it, even if she could check at any time.
The thread makes her nervous as she follows it. This is good and bad. Good because it means she’s onto something and bad because everything is getting heavy now. She’s starting to think that whatever is out there doesn’t want them to be happy. That theory was like thriftcloth but now it’s like armour rusted and stiff. When she finds the knots she sighs in a relief that feels like opiates. She starts to untangle them, picking them apart with blades of thought and that’s when she knows, looks up and sees it and it’s real.
All the mote auras are eyes. The haze is eyes, shades of pupils, slivers of iris, baleful in the blurs. She finds the line again and looks all the way to Jewel and her reflection, rippling, glints off his aura. From within the aura, subsumed, and exhumed back at her, her outside ghost, swimming out at her as if breaking the surface of inky waters.
She closes the lid on her beater and stares at her room. Her eyes rove around its walls while thoughts drift in her mind, not beating hard but not going away. All, she thinks, mirrors for the blank slate where she thought she’d had an inner storm.
She stays like this. She doesn’t ask, but Jewel starts getting her food.
The primacy has her stay alone. She can’t help it. She knows her flesh needs aren’t real anyway. They’re a reality, but artificial, like sucrose. Gets in the blood the same way, quickens the heartbeat the same way, but bartered, she thinks, traded for with something. For this primacy she’d traded her safety out there, but her solitude, her sanctuary, her solace comes first.
She hears a knock outside and thinks she’s hallucinating. She tries to imagine if she could hear someone’s fist pounding the butteye. The brick might mute it, or maybe her room doesn’t even exist before it laces through the butteye trying to meet her fingers.
She has to hear it three times before she bothers to look. The sunlight must flare outside, but that doesn’t make it real. She pushes open the door, which scrapes against the ground with a cry. There are three boxes outside. They are parcel wrapped, brown paper with string drawn taught. She stacks them in her arms like a tower, the top of the third box reaching her chin. When she flits back inside, drops the boxes, and pulls the door shut, she feels like she’s become unreal again, and it feels good now, like she’s safe.
She stretches out in the shadow like a cat, sits cross-legged in front of the boxes, and starts to untie them.
Baby octopi. Eight breaded and fried pieces, crusted a beigey brown with shadow filled valleys of skin. Rabanadas. Three pieces of sweetbread. Soft white dough, trim film of cake, snowfall icing.
The three boxes are the same. She counts off knocks and eats them all, finishing each box before she moves to the next.
She lies on the ancient waterbed for hours or decades, and the water, caked into stillness, can only reflect and refract her barren walls.
She opens her eyes to a door knock. She opens it to see another box.
She takes it, sits on the waterbed. Eats while catching all the crumbs of it in her sweatshirt. She spills them out to the floor, climbs onto the waterbed and pulls open the beatertop.
The Loum is darker now, papered by grey veil. She follows it with her shade essence. Jewel is a mote somewhere past fold and tangle.
She keeps moving. The shadows of the Loum are like cobwebs. She feels their ripples, cold hands.
The Velih are somewhere out there.
She curls around the thread as she moves.
The thread is sticky with some kind of acid burn. Corrosion she feels as a ripple through her nervosa scanners, loaners from Jewel that she didn’t feel right setting up on her beater in the first place.
Eventually she can feel Jewel’s mote aura through them. It’s greyer even than the Loum.
She spins out her threshold to find him.
They’re silent together. Almost eras until she gets paranoid he’s griefing her.
What’s up, she says. I was on it and then I was got deep. Was it you?
I’m not sure, he says. I keep forgetting. I’ve got those frayed wires, remember? Lot to keep track of.
It matters. She tinges this in a temperant bloom, choice unfurled through wisdom and it comes out provenance-filtered to show it might help both, if she knew. Because if it wasn’t you it was the Velih.
That doesn’t matter. He says this while his unstained empathy hits a snag, bleeding into game theory glyphica, the grey cope of entropic indifference spreading across his symbology like ink in water.
You may have noticed, she says, that it’s all I care about. But the Loum has always been slowmode, and her last boost leaves her too dry to put any vehemence into it. Always, she thinks, I use it on my venters, and Jewel scripts that always, every day, long as he wants.
Dude doesn’t even need to unspool the reality five feet around me to make my problems not matter.
The Velih are just a gaze of the Aspected, he says. Like he’ll tell her which apocrypha he pulled this from. That thing—hive—whatever it is, looks but not back, you know? The one we need to worry about something called the Dissembling. We read, or glean, that this one was pure neuroxia, before it had the substance to shape itself.
I don’t know about that, she says. Because whatever he’s talking about doesn’t sound like it should be her problem. What’s bugging me is the Velih.
And a karmal backswell, she thinks, a price to pay but I won’t know the format of it, until it’s too late.
The bug, he says. I’ve figured that one out. It’s knowing something is indexing everything you do. When the hormones hit you put two and two together that no one ever reads this index. The neurosal tar that keeps the index we gave shape to in the Velih, and when we named it, called it out, it got different.
But the Velih gave us their moltings so we could get deep enough into ourselves to hack our neurosis out, she says. Why would they want to tune in to watch people like them? That’s why no one here cares how they look or what they’re doing. Nobody but you, she’s about to add, but he’s put a minute of silence on her, one she hopes is worth it for what she’ll say when his strings arent all over her spine.
Most archivists, he says, mistranslate it. That’s the one we got here. But if you check out the Interwave, you see a lot of critical tags left at the door. I read them. There are a lot of ways to see it. But one tag came from someone who bothered to hash what he’d seen on his side into something we can deal with. He thought it was worth ghosting through into this disas-terpiece to let us know.
Someone like me, he says after, who is not me anymore.
Some angst worth it enough to make him lose all he knew about it. Despite herself, the residue of silence makes her mur-mur over this come out strained, like she could care less. Even as her own ghost is telling her it really couldn’t.
He said, Jewel says, each word tendrilic in translation, cluster patterned vibes into the Loum, trembling a cool breath through her. That something was bleeding through that took people apart. To study them and then put them back together. The way it found them.
Clouds of strung spores, the tethering a white silk meshweave plastered and flickering away, replumed with each new waver of his meaning. Plastered and vanished, disentegrating in sobs like candle wax burning through.
He said they weren’t on anymore. When that happened. After that you’re off, you’re gone. But for what this was that was okay, it couldn’t think its way past that.
Bleeding through what, she says. You’re being weird. The Interwave?
This thing could aug off the Interwave, Jewel says. You know? It knew how, it had the shape in itself, it understood. It comes from somewhere the Interwave hasn’t factored in yet. Will never factor in, I think. There are limits to that stuff.
Those pills, she says, and she thinks she’s just thought it to herself. But Jewel blanches, bone albino for the time she needs to realize the silence residue has worn off.
They were, he says, pre-measures. The Velih didn’t like the sound of any of that, and they knew it, before I knew it.
You built this, she says. You built it, right, so it had been built, for a while. But in its youth it stayed beneath the surface. It was just the bones of all things, for a while.
Crawl before you walk, he says. But what was a tic out there, in here, is a stutter. His words are jagged spikes in entrance but soft, stray motes and orbits in the fade out, in petals unraveling and keeping a tattered tangle, the swirl of cuts keeping only cloud papered over the weaving.
And now it’s really hitting its age, isn’t it? That’s what the corrosion is.
This one, he says, ekes it out even how it starts, and she rolls her irony around in her. Dreaming of, in some way, her shell, and her eyes contained in it shells also. Inked dots caged behind the plaster of sclera. The thinnest skin, and yet she knows from here. Her eyes on the beater, it would always be like glass that way. It wouldn’t move.
Ink dots, though, she thinks, moving.
It’s a ghoster, he says, won’t be me. Could be anything.
You can at least tell me, she says, what I’m gonna have to live through.
One figures, he says, this stuff, in that deeper decay, trending out from there.
The pulse, she says, fine. It’s in here with you. Give me some way to know that, then. It’s helpful. It makes it less annoying.
You’ll, he says, notice.
Chill, he says, and so annoyed at that choice she’s swept herself away. Back staring at the squared glow, the glaze of herself trapped within its own glaze of wavering light, all the RNG glyphs painted into it, in their entropy to keep her hazed out.
Because it’s all, she thinks, childhood removed like a tumour, like it’s the growing that messes you up and this you should wear like a scar in case everyone forgets. The new boys seem weak but their stares eat you from the inside-out like void radiation. From the charred fusions of their eyebrows to the black pits beneath.
One in ten or so now, still a symptom of the problem she’s only understood by getting used to it. A season through and she’s got it clear.
But of course when she sees them she’s not seeing them.
She’s seeing Jewel’s smirk of triumph, his slanting mouth about to notch her in his social conflict belt. The sliver of void there, peeking out.
Out here because her beatertop oh-so-happened to blow a fuse after she’d logged off. Found out this morning, shaking off hair plastered to her brow from a dream she can’t remember. But, she thinks, if she lost calories over it writhing it means his stupid mental got to her.
Once she’d realized she had to go outside, that was it, it was over. She didn’t need any excuse for it to put her in a bad mood. And nothing about it made it seem more like an excuse than a reason.
And so she’s telling the dude lurking barter in Tachae’s she just needs a stupid energy pod and why didn’t he get that the first time? And his lips crook into crescent moons before he smoothes his face out and tells her that was the first thing she’s said since she got here.
So she has to turn the breeze on, knowing on some level it could be hyper attention-dep chess on a stranger, but the Velih can edit the tapestral context however they feel like. It’s not about giving them a reason, it’s about not making them want to do it.
“Sorry," she says, “it’s just that I can’t afford the frills, you know?" Frills here being, she thinks, a rig like I just came here out of a dream and wanted to see the electric angels, can you show me.
And the way the walls here are threaded into the ghetto conceptual is a little too much. The blasé paper the shade of dry ice is peeling like half-skinned meat. The floor makes her want to use it to traverse back out of here. The only thing gleaming is the hardware, and she can tell that’s because they’ve cranked the glow up to reckless levels to wash out both pixel death and fizz stains smearing the chasses that she hopes were once carbonated matter.
This dude’s eyes are fine. But she still can’t really see all of them because of the way a woollen cap is slouched over them, thinning them to half circles like all she needs to see is their lower workings to know what’s up with him. The hair stringing its way into hopeful curls from below the cap is wet.
He shrugs and moves to a cabinet shoved into the corner of the room which in her view doesn’t have much long-term prospects for bearing the stuff stacked on top of it. Its shade of green would be garish if it hadn’t faded to the sickly colour of grass about to die of thirst. As a result of its sag what looks like a simple vidplayer is slumped against the tatters, and she thinks he’s trying to figure if any attempt to open the cabinet would be worth it.
She doesn’t blame him, because moving the vidplayer would involve also moving a mess of cable cords that have entwined it to other peripherals, smaller than the player and for that reason, she thinks, worth more, though she doesn’t know how she knows.
But she sidles closer just to scan how he’ll react, if she doesn’t keep that to herself, if she keeps her body facing them. Because she can always cancel out, and playing the tape up until that point will show her getting closer to him, not any hardware. And to see if it’ll throw him off, because she knows that’s the worst, trying to get through it and someone is scoping you.
But she thinks he started this by putting her here in the first place, and if he didn’t Jewel did by frying her beater. The dude looks like he’s made a choice, shoulders squaring with some release of doubt, before he has to slouch them again to toss his stare over them.
She fights the urge to fix her fists to her hips, doesn’t fight the urge to send her eyes in musing to the cabinet he’s set him-self before. But he got it right. Her sneakers could be frozen to the splotch they’ve chosen to make their home.
He shrugs, makes a ritual motion from a sect she’s never run into, braces himself and pulls the top drawer open. It makes it an inch and the tremor through his body shakes him enough to swear about it. But he’s released it with timing that she thinks was a hybrid of reflex and luck. He’s stumbling back. From within the top drawer she sees more glow, and tastes honey as she does, as it bleeds to raise the gradient of the room to a cramped twilight.
He catches himself against the far wall and glares at her, cat eyes, she thinks, blank beneath the burn of the glare itself. She snaps herself out of her stance just to find herself drawn closer to the light, even as she tells herself she doesn’t need the room brighter right now. Already it’s like seeing hell through heaven, even worse knowing you made it and they didn’t, thinking that down there they don’t have to think that.
But that time there was nothing in his eyes to turn her away.
Doesn’t matter that there’s something in his voice, a distant question: what is she doing? ... stuck-up tighter than ... someone else. He swears. And she thinks, all the strength I’ve hidden is leaking through my limbs.
Everything in that shine is safe before it seeps out my pores.
And she’s yanked it open and kept the serene stillness of the tableau. Did she even touch it? She’s not sure, but even as the light’s sudden burn is forcing her past her own shoulder, she’s seeing his slumped body against the plaster. Every seam of flesh sallowed in vacancy of its ghost, as if in mourning for itself, head hung low, his woollen cap waxing into sight a new absence, a thatch of hair spilling from a tear in it that she hadn’t noticed.
She screams at his shell. I still have to be here. Why aren’t you still around to get that?
He asks, rubbing the jaw that follows his eyes up at her, what that means. He’s getting up. But the light, she’d seen in his eyes, had been gone. Seen that in how gloss the reverb of the afterlight was, too lacquered, sleek as the finish once owned by the machines.
To, she thinks, in herself helpless, even take the care here needed, localized even to here.
But that decay was in the afterlight too, smeared in trails of dust and the blotched etchings of fabbed dew, bright candy hues when their pales were set out by it.
Still it’s back now, and it’s the same energy that flows out in a raise of his arm. She knows he’s about to gesture behind her to what she knows is an apocalypse, a bunch of now-dead and shattered hardware.
The weight of the silence after he does twins with his shadow, cast against the flaxen paint peels, belongs to it. His shadow blurred by the buzzing screenglow. His arms are limp by his sides, shoulderblades in splintered relief, etched in with the silence.
It’s heavy, pressured into shape. Like it’ll stay there long after he’s moved away from it.
But she thinks if Jewel’s password didn’t show up when she broke down over a pod that it must be waiting for her on the way home. And every time she sees a stray out here she thinks they’re about to sidle up and let it slip. The strays here have old dog eyes, round and hopeful despite the beaten faces they’re set into.
And she hadn’t hung around for a second on the chance Jewel was in all the way to the cut of her threadbleed. It would be like him to map out events that way, and if he’d put his virus in her life, in the bones of it after getting past her psychic skin, she’s too tired to deal with it. She’s too sick of it and she thinks this sickness came with the virus, showing that he’s got all the clues in her life but one. The one that solves the mystery they only have in common because he put that mystery there in the first place.
Telling herself that if that’s how he wants to get the pathogen in there, she can keep herself safe by keeping wareheads away for the minutes of time it takes to cash out a pod.
And she’s seeing that coldness all around her anyway, in the starkness of any structure here trying to release itself from the concrete that keeps it as low as her mood. Their walls are gray and the eyes judging her from the pristine bodies painted over them are blue. Wolves, she thinks. What else is there if they come at you like a pack, like they do it not for themselves but the weakest among them.
The eyes bristle the way ice clings to fur, and she thinks of how those cat eyes had warped in the light, cut up by his lids as he’d blinked his way into getting used to the new glow that to her felt sterile from the shock of how she’d first met it. But that’s how it works, it hits you hardest when you’re the first to see it in a while. You get anything the pod’s got from being pent up for so long. He’d wrapped it with gauze to stop it shining through her unislung pack.
Flash any glowdeath like that around here and you’re gonna have problems. Cluster dregs can tell, she knows, by now.
And in the severity, the compressed sprawl, she thinks if the Velih want to tip their hand that far it shows her the mood they’re in, every time she suffers through it.
So by the time she hears the password she doesn’t even think Jewel is any kind of psychic hacker for figuring it out. It’s like reading a book when everyone around you is dyslexic. It’s just another stray mired in deadmil fashion.
It’s the grief count, she thinks, it’s to the death with him.
It comes in low as a song they’re blaring from their clip player. She wants to tell the loser that his headphones are nowhere near any juice. That the compressed signals are just flying into space they only have access to because of that kind of pointless aural amplifying is so archaic that the Velih gave it cathedra freeware immaculacy. If the Velih give that kind of blessing to something you hate it’s not going away. But they give those things out like cross-dimensional bred bunnies you can score from the black market.
No one can afford the responsibility that comes with that but the karmic resonance that breezes out from saving them from pirate-broadcast chem-amped fight club keeps everyone knowing you’re on your toes there for a while. How else do you counter the satania of the promoters? They make sure to let everyone know they harvested only the best lifeforce from other quantum bunnies to give this one the fullest potential life to lose in the interwarren wars they themselves have burrowed into their foraged moltings.
She thinks the tech they got to autoforce shades of guilt onto the viewers’ mote auras they got from Jewel’s placid approach to safety. To the idea you should string some kind of ice into any thread. Did the Velih feed him that that tech? Who cares about how realistic they can sim rabbit holes, anyway? They’re pumping so many social-illusive hormones in there that half the time the two warrens forget they’re even supposed to agree with their own warriors.
Not that she would know.
But this tangent breaks off in her head as she sees the headphones are strung into the clip, which beams that truth in obsidian plastic from its perch on his velcro belt.
She’s hearing a song meant for him and she realizes she can spell out every word from how clear the lyrics sound to her above their hard-strung notes. Chill the fuck out. She tells herself if shes neuralmoding here it’s a fair RNG shot that those lyrics could come with anything now onpop.
So she has that grievance imprinted in that ghost way, so his prints aren’t near it. Ripples in the Interwave, she thinks, like asking it to prove you ever entered it.
Only the world you left keeps the tag that proves you were there.
As she comes in she’s thinking, hate patterns, hate patterns.
By the time she’d fit the pod in and sealed it with the gauze it came with, she’d hated them. On the beater’s hardboard were patterns she knew that didn’t show her anything real. She’d had to adjust to it, get used to a stasis that had become a veil over the way she saw them. Adjust to a meaning that had spiked itself so far home that it went right through her, even as she was looking at it.
She’d decided as the gauze unpeeled in a soft wave that this meant she’d blessed her healing, not cursed it, with used skin.
It had hurt in the same old way as she’d logged in and by the time she’s spooled her whole ghost into the Loum it was like her veins were too young to belong to her from the same old ways her blood was threading through, the same psyche mosaic filter you get with any molting.
She thinks that the age will come just waiting for the void to break through. Through the molting that has long been taut over it, that right now is black as any starless sky she’s ever seen.
Then he’ll have done it, she thinks, his custom molting that will show us all the true colour of our hearts.
What he’ll have done in such a perfect echo is create a drowning pool for everyone seeing themselves unfiltered. The thread here is a blur where Jewel’s lines shift over them. Over them, over her, her own sky being corroded. She thinks of the shell of herself, hunched over the beater, telling that self to get away, to get far, get outside.
Her shell would say, outside with the attention dep chess, the schizo trips that bleed from the walls. But now with the sky gone she is far away. She can’t even hear what that self has to say, what it would do if something went wrong.
When she sees him, the faint sheen of his mote aura against the dusken threadings is all that sketches him out of them.
Dude, she says, it’s over. This is death. Switch it off and start again.
I know, he says. But something tinges his aura in sepia, and she reads the flare of facade, slipping through the way he’d let it slip through.
But you can’t, she says. Too deep, and you got me here too. Tell me how it works. My ghost is so far inside, thanks to you.
It’s your ghost, he says, that chooses, not you. You might think you’ve chosen. Your body might leave. Close the beater. But if your ghost wants it can stay inside. It wouldn’t be me, then. It’d be whatever’s in you.
How would I check, she says, when I’m out? A glaze, the dead skin of her eyes that everyone would see but her.
Char your eyes. The reason the Tri-Sun is here is to drink it in. You’d be alone in yourself, that way. You could see if there’s anything there.
She thinks about it, her mote aura bristling with shards sinking into and rising from the gowned dust. Stabbing a pale moon hue to offset the darkness.
That might be helpful to you, she says, getting to the end of it. It’s what the Loum wants but it’s stained by you.
You gotta check. He shrugs this out, easy burn on her uptake. Glitter streaks up like it’s from higher ground, same translucence in their film the way the Tri-Sun had flickered out.
Dead pixel eyes. Dead pixels holding her eyes, she’d seen in her face her own contours, shutting her spirit out. Bones walling the light inside, no fire past the film but the shine of eyes reflected back, auric trace of the inner flame. A bleed between the light inside and the ocean of screenglow around her. The screenglow off the beater had hit her and she’d shut it.
The same way these papered walls are black filmed in Tachae’s gloom, keep the light spilling through the boards for themselves.
Cat Eyes was somewhere near, asleep. After she’d logged out, those eyes were holes. Holes in their memory into the darkness that without them had the strength to swallow her. They’d scattered into the seams, had drawn her into the cracks in it.
But get in, she’d thought, slipping out. She’d thought it at the waiting world, at her last chance to see, itself slipping away.
The graffiti ebbs out from around her chalk-white as words, tendrils snaking to blotches from the doorhatch, and pluming into their designs, floral patterns too faded in the dusk to see except in sketches. The cluster beyond is all compressed but here every slab that makes a difference to her route is lithic. Massive, monstrous.
She hears their weight calling her, yawning in echo even through the slit of the archway.
Their heartbeat is a dirge and the silence between beats stretches under her skin, and when they thud in they’re distorted by the flicker of forlorn, scattered guidelights that pulse with the Tri-Sun’s stored energy.
If we can store it, she thinks, we can use it up, and that thing is heating three of them up there.
If I don’t drink it, I won’t know if I’m still down there.
Soon she’s sitting at an ambrosaic cafe, corner window but that doesn’t keep away the memdepped. You can tell a good place by if the usuals are too mindblown to process you’re annoyed they’re bugging you.
Right now that social loop works for her, and she’s working on her chakric focal, making sure the wrong mems don’t swim away. And out of the corners of her eyes she keeps seeing Cat Eyes, and doesn’t know if she’d want to see him, but also if she wouldn’t want to.
Space cases she knows she has time for. Some can’t tell her their name but can tell her the shape of a leaf they saw pre-adolescence. The exact last chronal inplanet crossover pop was on-trend. By now she knows what not to say. What about interbleed crossover?
Too much to say, too much engraven trust to get it right. Crawl before you walk.
It’s always on with that tangent.
If she asked herself, she couldn’t tell them the chronal, couldn’t tell herself. She isn’t even that stuck on these. The last time she all-night ambrosed was far back, and she wipes that mem out to get this stuff in. If she did it before that she wiped that too.
It was far back, and she thinks, on and on, she would have kept it far back.
The place is all bodies besides, always someone new to talk to but she doesn’t see any charred eyes. But, she thinks, the memdepped would need eyes for their mems. Without eyes they’re drinking from a pool that isn’t filling back up. And if they knew they had no ghost left, all they would have were their mems.
There’s no one around to ask what it’s like, if it hurts.
It’s a blur of fast chats until she thinks she’s sitting with someone and she checks to make sure. They don’t look like they had much trouble also being in the corner, her same facing, out the pane streaked and smeared though you can’t make out much. The Tri-Sunlight still a sliver eking the stained concrete out and washed into the afterburn of the guidelights which by now are cycling out with their programmed drawn release, more death than light by now. Through the smear of the window and a built-up strength of ambrosaic fog what she sees is a faint dusting of the wash, like a film of snowfall.
Still dark as the black of her ambrosaic and since she doesn’t know what she’s looking at she doesn’t know what he’s looking at. But he’s peering steady, his head lined and faded out into a flop of waxed thatches, strung around his far cheekbone. Keeping his features from her sight.
Telling herself that would be the way it would want to go, but being around Jewel has her shook now, and it’s easy enough to reach up and flip it, if you had that itch.
There was too much facade, she thinks, he let too much through. Thinking it was honesty maybe, but it coils around itself forever that way, all artifice, all true spirit, all the same. All artifice, the same way.
“Is it all over now?" she says, though she can’t remember what might have begun. That’s a bad sign. They say that’s when it’s a binge, a bender, when you start tossing away thoughts you had five seconds ago.
Something I’m about to do, she thinks, will make it not matter. Because there won’t be any of this stuff around.
The sunlight, waiting for me, and I’ll know if I’m without myself, and if I’m there, all alone but not lonely, I can bleed through.
If there’s nothing left of me to bleed through I’m already dead, and it doesn’t matter.
Her brain puts that together in the breath he gives her question. “Still going," though, is what he says, in a searching voice, one probing through the words, the angst to get through them betrayed. A careless breeze but it skips to get over.
“Your name’s got that history," he says, as a follow-up. “You know, that history that is still going on."
“All names do," she says, bugged that he’s still not looking at her. “And if you cared about my name you wouldn’t have traded it in. And I wouldn’t have traded yours in, dude, for the same reason."
Because it must work that way, and I’m just seeing it now.
I can tell now. I have all these faces, and these names for them that aren’t there. Even when there aren’t ambrosaics involved.
“I took this pill," she says. “While ago. That’s my story. And I’m tired out. I got tired out by the way it made me feel, so long ago. How all of this is so small. I just kept getting tired."
This must be sinking into his pool because now she can see his face, with the thatching curled over the same way but now framing an edge of earlobe.
“Everyone gets the wrist in," he says, “at some point." She would’ve taken more empathy but she gets it. The buzz of chatter all around has blended into a single voice, pausing to intone discordant sounds but never for breath or for the next thought to thread its spooling out. It’s one thought, patterned in different slants from inner vibes but the logic is steady, no matter the inflects on any of the details.
“Let’s see yours," she says.
He thinks about it. Shudder of his shoulders like he kept some breath in that he wishes he could have released.
“To remember you by," she says, and she’s thinking, sail away, unfurl those riggings, do it yourself if you have to. They used to do it like that, wristed to the prow, if it would be good luck, if you had been bad luck before.
Wouldn’t say he made it all the way. Bit of ruby red gossamer peeking from where the sleeve catches, could’ve been the flush that traces your bloodlines when you’re ambered. Maybe brighter, because she had felt stung, dug into the way a mark on someone’s skin will dig, when it’s past blemish, a touch more contrast. But she hadn’t gotten a good look and the sleeve has fallen back.
“Dude," she says, “why does anyone even come here?"
He’s looking out again. Is that the Tri-Sun making itself known? Strands of shade, curling like ribbons, the darkness outside is swimming.
“I don’t know my name," he says, “so how the fuck would I have told it to you?"
“That’s not why," she says. “You would know it, if you hadn’t come here. That’s what got in the way."
He gives her this look, and it must be speeding up, or something is messing with the tape, like she has their eyes but just their lonely ones. Just the ones checking out what she would be doing here, what anyone else would be. It must be sped up because that light is already in here with her. It’s frosting his eyebrows, each streak thickened by a glitter glow, each strand part of the dance.
Those eyes, old eyes on her and widened. Ancience in the glare of their slotted crease of iris.
“As if," he says, “I’d forget the way. All it was my whole life and it was the one thing I kept with me when I was born again."
“Like you know," she says, because this guy’s going nowhere, and she knows what it means, that the light is in here with them because it’s outside now for her to drink. It’s setting the indoor halogen off, that split second cascade of blinding strobe before the counterkeep gets it that they should adjust. Before, she thinks, any presence at all gets it, but it stretches out and she’s stumbling out but she thinks he’s said something and she said something back.
In that strobe, she’d seen the memdepped live their lifetimes out, all they had left and all they were about to use up.
Yea, thought he’d said something. It had sounded like he was real fixed on being born again. All born as ghosts, he’d said, besides me. Because all of us threw it away here but I had this vibe, I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe I’d thrown away something that I had really wanted to hang onto.
It should’ve been that same sob story to her because it sounded gotcha. Trying to play on that fear that when you came here you were pretty sure you’d hung onto what was worth keeping about your first blood and its first coinciding in you and where you were. Spook story for the shallow social greet and fleet. What if dude, you actually lost what mattered most? What a trippy that would be.
In that everlasting strobe she hadn’t been so sure.
So she’d been clear on what he said, but there was some vagueness in because what she’d said back is a mystery to her. But it must have fit, must have gotten her moving without feeling like she’d left it unsaid.
When she’s outside, the other side of the glass, he could still be there. Thinking it over? No, trading it away. Was she hoping she’d said something he wouldn’t? Some flash, some girl told me this, you know, and it made me think. So much so that I remember it but not my local area.
When she finds the Tri-Sun, her eyes are dry, and she knows they will always be now. And as it’s burning in, such a soft and sweet burn this early in the morning, she’s seeing what she has left to hold onto.
It distills in her, and she thinks, keeps a glimmer of hope though it’s hard to focus, she sees semblance, a shape that is holding, a script, points from here to there, the shadow of her story. It’s not a story she could tell herself. It’s not enough that way, not enough to be sure yet. But it looks like enough to plaster in the smeared imprint her body makes in the gloop bend. The same spirit that writes the carriage of her bones. Like a shadow in a doorway.
An outline, enough to get a read.